Blood on Roses

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May the Trials Commence

“At last, I felt the solitude that I no longer welcomed.”
~ Zachary Nolan

TWENTY-NINE

Arthur hurried back, then exchanged glances with Alecx.

“Really?” he asked.

With no emotions present in my being, I didn’t feel the need to explain myself. “You said I could start today, right?”

Alecx beamed in relief, and Arthur, too, seemed like a weight was lifted from his shoulders.

“Excellent. You made the right choice, Hazy. I’ll go right now to speak with the committee and retrieve the key for this cell,” Arthur said, resembling an excited child on Christmas.

I shook my head. “Move.”

I wish the bars confining me would break down.

They reacted just in time and stepped back before the solid silver bars in front of us suddenly snapped to pieces. It clanked loudly on the concrete ground. I stepped over the pile of metal as if I didn’t just effortlessly break the artificial material that had always been indestructible to vampires.

I glanced over my shoulder at the two stunned boys. I offered a small smirk and asked, “What are you waiting for?”

The fact that I was a vampire must’ve only sunk in just now. Neither Arthur nor Alecx had seen me in action or with vampiristic traits until now. Although my heart had already frozen over, I was sure that the warm shade of my hazel eyes made them subconsciously doubt that I was any different from the girl they’d known forever.

Arthur was better at masking his emotions, but Alecx, as usual, was an open book to me. The only thing I found on his face was sadness after the shock had passed.

Just then, my ears picked up on a distant screaming female. I turned back to the entrance of the dungeon. Soon, the voices grew closer, and Henrietta descended the stairs, furious. Kaydence followed right behind her.

“One vampire is already too much. I don’t care what the old hags say! That vampire girl is not staying!” Henrietta yelled.

Kaydence noticed me first, and she tugged on Henrietta’s arm. Henrietta directed her fuming gaze at me, and her eyes flew wide. She glared at Arthur and demanded, “Why did you let her out? As a Chief vampire hunter, this proposal of yet another vampire among our ranks has to go through me.”

Arthur smiled a little and pointed his thumb to the ruins that used to be sturdy prison cell bars. “Well, you see, she broke those bars in the most epic way possible and stepped out. You can’t blame this one on me.”

Henrietta exhaled deeply. “Arthur, are you really going to take in another vampire just because she’s the daughter of your best friend? I don’t know what screw was loose in everybody’s heads twenty years ago to have allowed Grant, but now that I’m here, I insist our line of hunters should remain human-only. If I had the authority twenty years ago, I would’ve done everything to forbid a vampire vampire hunter.”

“People like Grant and Hazel were pulled into lives that they don’t want. You’re acting selfishly,” Alecx shot back, very unlike his usual gentle character.

Henrietta seemed like she could say a hundred things to counter Alecx’s argument, but she held them back and made a mess of her feathery paperboy cut instead.

“Look,” Arthur said. “Grant had to pass multiple tests to ensure that he was truly on our side. Hazel can skip that and go straight to the fitness testing.” His voice was firm and left no space for debate.

If I could still feel guilt, I’d be feeling it at this moment.

“If she’s so goddamn trustworthy, why didn’t she come to us when she first got turned?” Henrietta inquired and crossed her arms. She wasn’t addressing me, so I saw no need to talk. Her opinions had some sway over the final decision, but as long as I proved my worth, I’d pass without a hinge.

Alecx stepped forward more until he was right beside me. “Everyone has a part of their life that they don’t want to talk about, Chief King, just like you. Hazel doesn’t need to be interrogated by anyone.”

Untroubled by Alecx’s words, Henrietta finally spared a glance at me. With a knowing smile, she challenged, “Fine. If she could pass all of the required tests within the next twelve hours, I’ll allow it.”

This is when the antagonist challenges the protagonist to something seemingly impossible, but the protagonist somehow pulls through and slaps it into the antagonist’s face.

It was quite fun to see a story archetype happen to me.

“That’s unreasonable, and you know it.” Arthur stepped up. “Back then, it took you a week to prepare and two days to pass it all.”

“Everyone knows that Devyn passed it all in one day with no preparation time. It’s only reasonable that the next generation can surpass that record.” She spun on her heels and walked out afterward with Kaydence.

Okay, bitch.

“You don’t have to do what she says,” Alecx said, facing me. “One of the requirements is winning a sword fight against an Associate. An Associate is only one rank lower than an Elitist. It’s not possible to win a match without at least months of training. Even your dad was a trainee for a year before he took the tests. We can find another way.”

“Why?” I asked. “Twelve hours is a long time.”

Alecx opened his mouth to speak, but Arthur interrupted, “If you want to, you can give it a shot. We’ll accompany you the entire way.”

I knew Arthur too well. He assumed that I was overly confident because I didn’t know what lied ahead. He thought that I’d give up once I saw how high the requirements were.

The interior of this hunters’ base was impressive and enormous. The balcony halls had floor-length windows and ceilings high enough to stuff a giraffe inside. The gray carpet tiles muted our footsteps, giving the entire hallway an isolated essence of a library.

The first floor consisted of rooms that seemed like regular office cubicles. This was probably what Arthur meant when he told me that not all vampire hunters were out in battle. The departments were all empty since it was still barely five in the morning.

I glanced to my left through the floor-length windows. It was still dark out. To the right, a branching hallway eventually appeared between the walls and led to more offices. We made that turn and soon got to an elevator. I watched as Arthur tapped his ID card on a scanning pad and pressed the third button.

“There are four tests in total,” Alecx began. “Physical trials include a sword-fight, agility run, and duel with a vampire. The other one is a written test that you have to ace. Are you sure you can do all that in half a day?”

It was great that when I wished my feelings away, self-doubt flew out the window along with the rest.

“I can at least try,” I said. Alecx turned away.

“We’re here,” Arthur announced and the elevator door slid open to show an entire floor dedicated to sword-fight training. Many diligent people were already engaged in practice.

“The other side of the floor is close-combat training.” Alecx pointed his thumb toward the opposite door of the elevator.

This was not the base that Arthur previously brought me to, but I couldn’t care less about finding out where I was.

Once we exited the elevator, a modest foyer allowed us to hang up our coats or change shoes.

The training ground had half of its walls as floor-length vampire-proof windows, and the other half were sound-proof walls with inspirational posters plastered on them. Some of them were quite cheesy.

A separate backroom appeared like storage for extra equipment. A rack of wooden swords stationed beside it. A large practice mat was the flooring of the entire area. Boundary lines meant for one-on-one practice surrounded a larger one in the center.

A man hurriedly made his way around the room as soon as he saw Arthur. He looked no more than twenty years old and at least six feet tall.

“Chief Carrington,” he greeted and nodded his head down in respect, then glanced at me. He seemed to understand the situation right away.

Arthur nodded back, then turned to me and introduced, “This is Travis. He’s an Associate and a great swordsman.”

Apparently, I must defeat Travis to pass the first test.

Travis squinted his already narrow eyes to inspect me. I wore a cardigan, jeans, and converse shoes. Enough said. I asked for the change room. I thought about wishing for my backpack, which contained more comfortable clothes, but then I remembered that I laid them out so they wouldn’t wrinkle. Warping each piece of clothing would take way too much power.

I turned to a mirror. I should be able to wish for a change of clothes.

My orbs whirled to a violent shade of crimson.

I had to have specific thoughts in my mind to create an outfit. I didn’t want to be boring and request plain leggings and a shirt.

I suddenly thought that the roses back home would wither away in days’ time now that they were left alone.

That thought led me to my vampire mother. Harvick told me that she could revive anyone within twenty-four hours after death. Why didn’t she revive father? Or was she killed first? It was still beyond me to dig up a story twelve years in the past, even with my ability.

The only way I could find the truth was from the perpetrator. At that thought, I didn’t feel anger. I focused my attention back on my eyes in the reflection.

Red, like a rose.

Beautiful, like a rose.

Lethal, like a rose.

A bright light surrounded my old clothes, and it morphed into new shapes. When the radiance dimmed, I wore a stretchy black shirt under a thin and long cardigan in a dark shade of wine red. White stitches of rose patterns littered the hem that brushed at my lower shin. The cardigan was designed to camouflage my shape during battle, which suited my speed.

A silver belt held the waistband of my shorts, and I walked around a bit to get used to the thigh-high boots. I pulled my hair out of the cardigan and let it fall naturally around my shoulders. I was wrapped in darkness from head to toe.

I was as ready as I would ever be.

My appearance attracted everyone’s attention, but I didn’t feel self-conscious. Travis nodded in approval as he could see the camouflaging design of the outfit. Boots weren’t the most comfortable shoes to move around in, but the heel could come in really handy for foot-stomping. And since vampires didn’t feel warm or cold, the shorts wouldn’t bother me.

While I picked a long wooden sword, Travis pulled out a real sword that would cause damage to a human. In the corner of my eye, I saw that Alecx was about to protest, but Arthur held him back.

“I’ll use an iron sword, is that alright?” Travis asked, and I nodded in response.

May the trials begin.

He charged right at me. I held my piece of wood over my head. The sword was thick, and I barely blocked in time.

Even if I knew nothing of a sword battle, I understood from the start that one of my only advantages was my physical strength. I thought I wouldn’t use my ability too much, especially since I barely had much energy left.

I reacted quickly and pushed my sword backward, sending Travis stumbling a couple of steps. By the look on his face, I could tell that my thin arms deceived him, even for a vampire.

I hopped to the side and dodged his next attack. For this trial, our boundaries were the entire training ground. All of the other people piled around the room to watch.

But I soon received a reminder that vampire hunters weren’t entirely human, either.

Travis flicked his wrist and changed the direction of his sword right in my direction. I twisted my body at the last minute, and he stabbed my flying cardigan. The fabric was too thin and light for the sword to pass through. I tried to seize the opportunity and strike, but he easily parried the blow by positioning his sword vertically.

I leaped backward and put some space between us. I noticed that Travis always seemed to return his sword to a position where it ran from the bottom of his torso to the top of his head.

Once Travis noticed that I emulated his posture, he shifted his arms and extended the sword horizontally outward. The blade pointed at my throat. That stance would’ve been very intimidating for an inexperienced fighter like me had I still felt fear.

For the next few strikes, I did my best to evade his blade and observe his positions and movements. He further tried to frighten me and force me to lose my balance by spinning before making a strike.

I caught a scan of the people around us who looked impressed with his movements.

I suppressed a grin. Travis cared too much about how he looked in front of his students.

“Is dodging all you can do?” Travis taunted, pulling me out of my thoughts. “Mastering the sword takes long years of practice. You’re still too inexperienced. It’s utterly disrespectful to think that you can pass this within a few hours.”

His words caught me by brief surprise until I heard a faint scoff. My heightened hearing identified that as Henrietta. She was hiding in the shadows of the foyer, and Kaydence was probably with her. Now I definitely couldn’t lose this match.

“I am inexperienced. In fact, this is my second time holding a sword, even though it’s wooden,” I said, waving the heavy thing around. “But I like to believe that each weakness may have strength. An unpracticed fighter is also one that’s difficult to predict, right?”

Travis gripped his sword more tightly. I mimicked his stance and slid my feet wider apart. I extended the sword, so the tip pointed at his throat.

Our spectators stood up straighter; it was the exact reaction I had hoped for.

“I respect your swordsmanship, and I agree that it must take years to master,” I stated, the corner of my lips tugged upward. “For a human.”

The crowd reacted vocally, and that finally ticked Travis off. His weakness was easy to exploit. He raised his sword and came at me at an impressive speed. Again, for a human.

I decided to fight him as a vampire. I couldn’t let all this excessive strength to go waste.

I parried the blow and immediately zipped past him. I went by so fast that all he saw was a flash. I swung my sword at his back and clicked my tongue when he saw it coming. He brought his arms over his head, and the iron sword ran down his back, blocking my attack.

This is getting tedious.

Everybody else quieted into a suspenseful silence as I spun around and lowered my center of gravity. I pretended to try to stab him in the side. He stepped back, thereby temporarily losing his footing, and countered my attack, but he soon realized that I didn’t put any strength into that thrust.

Before Travis could react, I secured my grip and twisted his sword with mine. My body moved at vampire speed, and with vampire strength, I wrung his iron sword straight out of his hand using my block of wood.

Momentarily, all that could be heard was the sound of the metal sword plunging into the wall.

Not wasting a second, I retracted my arm and placed my sword beside his neck while his defense was wide open.

I win.

The spectators remained silent even as I withdrew my weapon. Travis rigidly stood in place as if in shock.

“One down, three to go.” I swung the wooden sword by its handle in circles until I reached the rack and returned it. I turned to face the foyer. “And you can’t even deny it, Henrietta King.”

I would’ve wanted to feel a sense of pride after that victory, but now wasn’t the time for that.

“Let’s go.” I dragged Alecx and Arthur by their arms into the elevator. As the door slid closed in front of me, I could see the pure “I made a mistake” look written all over Henrietta’s face.

“Uh, Hazel?” Alecx asked. “What exactly is your power?”

A test of swordsmanship was based on one’s natural strength and speed, so my vampire physical power was expected, but if he heard about my multi-purpose ability, any person with a brain would assume that the match was unfair.

“If I told you, you’d definitely think I cheated.”

“I won’t! Do you have the power to generate magical clothing?”

I thought Alecx’s sentence was humorous, but I shook my head. “Where are we going next?”

“I guess... the agility run test in the gym.” Alecx slipped out his ID card, then pressed on the ground floor button. This scan pad seemed like a pain to deal with every time.

I then noticed that Arthur hadn’t said a single word this whole time.

“What are you thinking about, Arthur?” I asked as the elevator began to descend.

“Just ways to murder whoever made you a vampire.”

My parents are already dead, dude.

“That’s my job,” I replied without thinking.

Both of them looked at me. “So you admit it was Dracul who turned you?”

My eyebrows fleetingly knitted together. I fixed my gaze straight ahead. I might as well let them hold that assumption. Both of them uttered curses under their breaths for the rest of the way to the gym.

As we headed down yet another hall, a voice in my head broke the silence.

“Where are you, Hazel? You’ve been gone for five hours. Is Zach with you?”

I had forgotten about Hailee. If she ever found out what I’d done, she might have a mental breakdown. I also couldn’t risk letting Vivian locate me.

I maintained a calm and unbothered expression. “Yeah, sorry about that. The talk didn’t go well. We parted ways hours ago. Did he not go back, yet?”

“Nope. Probably went over to the next town again. He does that to escape things he doesn’t want to think about. Where’d you go? Should I go pick you up?”

I would’ve been touched with how considerate Hailee was being.

“No, thanks. I’m just hanging around places. Don’t worry about me. I won’t be back for a while.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“I’m fine. I just need time alone.”

“Alright. I’ll check on you once a day. Don’t do anything stupid.”

Too late.

Alecx held open the gym door for Arthur and me. The interior was quite large, and I could see several men playing a friendly match of basketball. Who the hell did that at six in the morning?

Twenty minutes later, Arthur came back with Henrietta and another woman. Kaydence followed behind them.

“I’ll be your examiner for today. You can call me Quinn.” She sat down on a bench nearby and shoved a strand of her short blonde hair behind her ear. “You’re a vampire, so we must conduct this test in a way that is fair. Grant had the record of completing the test in 7.29 seconds. I believe you must complete it within 6 seconds to reasonably pass. Do you agree? If yes, then we can begin right away.”

Reasonable, my ass. I glanced at the arrogant sneer on Henrietta’s face and figured that this must’ve been her idea. I turned back to observe the track.

I must sprint around the pylons and weave through four of them in the center. The length of the course was ten meters, and the width was five. I hadn’t done the agility test since ninth grade.

Alecx came over and briefly explained, “The good average score for a male is 15 seconds and 17 for a female. I got 13.63 on mine. You think you can do this in under 6?”

I appreciated Alecx giving me an insight on how fast a fit human could run this. If Grant could do it in seven seconds, I didn’t see why I couldn’t shorten that record.

“Do you agree to these terms?” Quinn asked impatiently.

“Yes.”

“Good. You have two tries.”

Alecx patted my shoulder. “Good luck.”

I dropped the cardigan so it wouldn’t act as a parachute while I ran. I then noticed that there was a distinct outline of a red rose stitched onto the left front area of my shorts.

My wedged boots clicked as I walked to the start line. Perhaps these weren’t the ideal footwear for an agility run.

I wish these could turn into running shoes for five minutes.

May the tests commence.

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